Helen Jenks gripped the steering wheel and squinted into the darkness beyond the beam of the blue Volkswagen’s headlights. Nothing looked familiar. Was she almost home? The snow had stopped falling, but in these hills so far from town, the county didn’t bother to plow. She didn’t know if she drove on the right road, or any road at all. There were no other cars, no tire tracks.
Where was everyone?
She sighed. Home in bed, probably, where she would be if she hadn’t pulled a double shift at the hospital.
An odd drone caught her attention. She held still and tried to isolate the sound from the rumble of the Volkswagen engine. Was something wrong with the bug? Oh, please, no.
All at once the sky lit up. She leaned forward for a better view and caught sight of a brilliant star that seemed to throb in time with her heartbeat, growing brighter with each pulsation.
She sat back and rotated her head to ease the stiffness in her neck. Maybe it was Venus. Hadn’t she read that at certain times of the year, under certain conditions, Venus could be as big and as bright as the moon?
Leaning forward again, she saw the star pulse one last time, then wink out. As she became used to the darkness it left behind, it reappeared, darted toward the horizon, and vanished. So, not Venus. Perhaps a meteor or two.
She listened for the drone, but no longer heard it. Good.
Ten minutes later, she noticed a pin prick of light in the distance: her porch light. Her car slid to the side, and she gripped the steering wheel harder. Be careful, she cautioned herself. You’re not safe at home yet.
When at last she parked in front of her old frame house, she pried her fingers off the steering wheel and stumbled out of the car. Except for the dings and pops of the cooling engine, the world was silent, appearing so new and un-touched, she hesitated to mar the opalescent expanse with her boot prints. Then her eyebrows drew together. The snow wasn’t untrodden after all. Tracks led to the house where a small gray creature huddled against the door.
She clapped her hands. “Shoo. Shoo.”
The creature did not stir.
“Go on. Get,” she shouted.
The creature still didn’t move. Could it be dead? This wouldn’t be the first time a dying animal had been attracted to the warmth seeping from beneath the front door.
She approached gingerly, relaxing when she saw what appeared to be an old gray blanket that had somehow ended up on the stoop. She bent over to collect the wad of fabric, then straightened. Bad idea. Who knew what vermin had taken refuge in the folds.
Before she could figure out what to do, the blanket moved. She jumped back and stared at it. The blanket moved again, giving her a glimpse of a coppery curl.
Helen drew back a corner of the blanket. Two dark eyes, shining with intelligence, gazed up at her.
She sucked in a breath. An infant, no more than nine months old.
As the baby continued to gaze at her, its eyes brightened to gleaming amber. Then it beamed at her—a welcoming smile, both joyous and knowing, as if it had recognized a dear friend.
Helen’s face grew tight. “Who are you?” Such a silly question to ask an infant, but she felt too tired to make sense of the situation. “And who left you here?” She glanced at the tracks. They led in only one direction—toward the house.
Feeling dizzy, she crouched to examine the tracks more closely.
They were footprints. Tiny footprints in the snow.
She staggered to her feet and followed the impressions to see where they had originated, but there were no foot-prints beyond her driveway. No tire tracks, either, other than her own. It seemed as though the baby had appeared out of nowhere and headed straight for her front door. All by itself.
Shivering, Helen studied the baby. The amber eyes staring back at her gleamed with laughter as if inviting her to share a joke.
Exhaustion washed over Helen. “What am I supposed to do with you?”
The baby’s amber eyes darkened to chocolate brown, and Helen knew it was mulling over the question, but how she knew what the color change had meant, she couldn’t say.
“The first thing to do is get you out of the cold.”
The eyes brightened.
Helen hefted the child onto her hip and unlocked the door. Once inside, she switched on a light, turned up the heat, then laid the baby on the floor and unwrapped the blanket.
It was a girl, and she was naked. She looked normal for her age, though her legs and feet seemed too well developed, more like those of a toddler than an infant. The toes were very cold and wet. Helen rummaged in her linen closet for a soft towel, then briskly rubbed the tiny limbs.
The baby’s eyes gleamed amber.
“Now what?” Helen asked. A nurse, she frequently cared for the young, but in a hospital where she could lay hands on everything she needed. And nothing in all those years of experience had prepared her to care for such an exceptional child. Well, she would have to make do.
When she returned after fetching an old T-shirt that might suffice for a diaper, the baby was gone. She found her in the bathroom, trying to climb onto the toilet. Helen lifted her and held her on the seat. The baby looked at her with dark, dark eyes. Helen averted her gaze.
The baby allowed Helen to clean her, then she tottered back to the living room. Helen followed, dangling the T-shirt from her fingers. She didn’t want to insult the child by diapering her, but what else could she do? Her own underwear would be much too large.
The baby’s eyes brightened. Helen looked around to see what had caught that amber gaze. Ah, her doll collection. The small dolls were arranged on shelves; the largest ones sat primly on a faded brown velvet loveseat.
“Good idea,” Helen said. “The clothes from one of the big dolls should fit you.”
The child toddled over to the loveseat and tugged at a rag doll almost as big as she was.
Clutching the soft toy to her chest, she plopped on the floor, closed her eyes, and fell asleep.
Helen put the still naked baby on her bed, surrounded her with pillows, and covered her with a comforter. Then, yawning, she stood and watched the little one slumber. Could the child be an angel, come to earth on a star? Smiling at the absurdity, Helen returned to the front room, curled on the couch, and wrapped an afghan around her. She knew she should call the sheriff’s office and report the foundling, but she didn’t have the energy to deal with all that bureaucratic nonsense. Tomorrow would be soon enough.
The sound of singing woke her an hour later. Thinking the clock radio had clicked on, she hurried to the bedroom to silence the music before it disturbed the sleeping child.
She paused in the doorway, and stared. The little girl sat in the middle of the bed, rocking the doll and singing in the sweetest voice Helen had ever heard.
Tears came to her eyes as she listened. Though she could not distinguish any individual words, the song spoke to her of loneliness, of loss, and perhaps of love found.
Blinking rapidly, Helen stole away.
In the morning, she fixed oatmeal. While watching the child eat, she picked up the phone and dialed the sheriff’s number but disconnected the line before the call went through.
Still grasping the receiver, she called the hospital and told her supervisor she wouldn’t be able to come in that day.
The baby grinned at her and banged the spoon on the table.
“You didn’t tell me who you are,” Helen said. “What do I call you?”
The little girl opened her mouth and made a soft sound as though trying to expel something from her throat. Her eyes darkened. She opened her mouth again, and this time a word floated out on a breath.
“Rena?” Helen said. “Your name is Rena?”
Rena smiled and gave her an amber look.
* * *
* * *
Day after day, Helen picked up the phone to call the sheriff but instead called the hospital, claiming to be ill. And perhaps she really was ill, she thought. She certainly wasn’t her normal self. She had never particularly liked children, hadn’t seen the point of them, but she couldn’t bring herself to part with Rena. The child intrigued her. More than that, the luminous little girl made her feel alive.
Not knowing how long she’d have with Rena, Helen begrudged every moment of sleep. She rose with the dawn and felt renewed by Rena’s sunny smile.
After straining to get out that first word, every hour, it seemed, Rena expanded her vocabulary. One day during their second week together, Rena climbed on Helen’s lap and gave her a hug.
“Thank you for taking care of me,” she said. “It is very kind of you.”
“You’re welcome,” Helen said. Then she sighed. “I’ve been selfish keeping you. I should have tried to find out who you belong to. Do you know your mother’s name?”
Rena laughed and clapped her hands. “Helen.”
Helen swallowed a lump in her throat and kissed the top of the silken head. When she could speak again, she said, “Do you know where you came from?”
Rena’s eyes darkened. “No.”
“Do you know how you got here?”
Rena’s eyes grew even darker. “I don’t remember. I was just a baby then.”
Helen’s heart contracted. For all her grown-up ways, Rena was still a baby, and deserved a better life than she could give her. Tomorrow she would call the sheriff for sure.
But she didn’t.
* * *
A few days later, shortly after putting the child to bed for an afternoon nap, Helen heard Rena singing her strange and lovely song. She waited until the last aching note dissolved into silence, then entered the room.
“Can’t you sleep?”
Rena’s eyes blazed amber at the sight of her, but darkened immediately.
“We have to leave,” she said in a low voice that sounded more compelling than any shout. “Urshu says it is no longer safe here.”
“Who is Urshu?”
Rena pointed to a corner of the room. “Him.”
“I don’t see anyone.”
Rena paused, cocking her head as if listening. “He says only I can see him.”
Helen hid a smile. So, Rena had an invisible playmate.
“Why do we have to leave?” she asked, playing along.
Another head-tilting pause. “He says they are coming. If they find us, they will take me, and they will kill you.”
Any desire to smile instantly evaporated.
Who is “they,” she wanted to ask, but Rena’s eyes were such deep pools of blackness she knew the answer would not be forthcoming.
“How much time do we have?”
“Urshu says no more than four hours.”
Helen’s mind churned, making note of all that needed to be done before they could escape. Pack the Volkswagen. Close out her account at the bank. Stop by the hospital. Buy a few things at the store.
Perhaps it was foolish of her to give so much credence to the words of a small child, but she owed Rena the benefit of the doubt after all the joy she’d brought to her life. And if the crisis turned out to be nothing more than an imaginative child’s creation, they could come home. But Rena’s black gaze told her the truth—they wouldn’t be coming back.
“I need to run errands,” Helen said, “but I don’t think you should come in case somebody sees you. Will you be okay if I leave you here alone?”
Rena’s eyes brightened. “I won’t be alone. Urshu will watch over me.”